I have a thing for California, I guess I told you so already. San Francisco makes me blush, I’m that kind of girl! When I rode my rattletrap rental bike down the cities’ hills for the first time, just a few years ago it happened – from that moment on I could not stop thinking about the gloomy clouds tenderly petting the Pacific surface. I love the hills, the rainbow flags, the flower power and the pastel-painted houses. I even like the wind (I normally don’t). And that special moment when you arrive at the airport and spot the very first palm tree. It’s just some funny looking tree, but it makes me happy, it really does.
So when Finnair asked if I wanted to try out their brand new direct flight from Helsinki to San Francisco I said yes. Of course. Someone’s gotta go check on those palm trees, right?
(Thank you for the good vegan meals in the clouds, Finnair!)
When I visit a city on my own I often just stroll around and go with the flow, which is nice, but I also love the inspiration and new ideas that come up when you travel with others. On this trip we were accompanied by Visit California and I learned much more about “Everybody’s favorite city”, so let me share 15 (newish) favorites of what to do when in town – a collection of tips as colorful and mixed-up as the city itself! The palm trees await you!
(Palm trees and the famous cablecars in the cities center)
1. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge on a bike
San Francisco might be hilly and your bum might be in pain the day after, but that’s not enough of an excuse to miss out on all those beautiful views and the soft, warm airflow in your hair. Go rent a bike and cross that bridge – I swear, you won’t regret it!
(The view from the bridge ain’t bad either!)
2. Explore Sausalito
If you go all the way over the bridge you will leave San Francisco behind and soon enter Sausalito, which is a lovely spot to just be, stroll along the shore, have a coffee in the sun (or rain – still pretty!) and enjoy the chilled beach town vibes. A vacation within a vacation, if that makes sense – and a perfect destination to arrive at after a somewhat long bike tour!
(Heading to Sausalito via bike. So pretty!)
3. Ride the ferry
If you made it all the way to Sausalito and wanna go back to San Francisco it’s really fun to take the ferry – just lean back and watch the shore from the water. You can bring your bike with you or just skip the whole workout bike thing and take the ferry back and forth, when visiting Sausalito.
(Waving Sausalito a goodbye from the ferry)
4. Stroll though the Palace of the Fine Arts
San Francisco is very diverse and always ready to surprise you, be it with its people, food or architecture; the latter can be a pretty wild mix, which I find quite charming. If the weather is good check out the Palace of the Fine Arts. It’s located in a park in the Marina District. Entering the monumental building makes you lose track of time and space and feels like you just woke up in some saga. Originally it was constructed for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, nowadays it is beloved by tourists as well as locals and home to different events, exhibitions (and a big colony of turtles). Some people even get married within the monumental walls – reach for the stars, right?
5. Discover Oakland (and potentially watch a baseball game)
I never watch sports, so I’m surprising myself by recommending you watch a baseball game in Oakland. But I mean it (the magic of traveling, there it is again!). I still don’t fully understand the rules, (…people are running), but I loved the very local experience and exploring a bit of the culture behind it. So many favorite movie stars of mine have sat down in a bowl with a giant paper cup of sugary soda and a bowl of peanuts that it felt quite familiar to sit down and whoop together with new and old friends.
On top of that, visiting Oakland is worth it on its own. Often overshadowed by its famous neighbor, the former industrial city has a lot to offer, and actually even more sun than San Francisco (scientifically proven, just real news here!). Deserted as a result of financial crises and rapid technological developments it managed to slowly re-emerge as a place to be and nowadays is full of new ideas, restaurants, art galleries and curious, passionate people. If you are staying in San Francisco getting to Oakland is super easy – luckily the public transport works well here and the Bart train quickly takes you (almost) everywhere for very little money. Having an Airbnb or hotel a little outside of San Francisco and transiting in is also a good tip if you are on a budget, since the prices are still much lower here.
(The Bart train will get you almost everywhere really quickly)
6. Check out Berkeley’s thriving food scene
Speaking of public transport, here’s another surprise for you: getting to Berkeley from San Francisco also only takes you 30 minutes with the Bart train. And it is so worth the ride – one of my trip’s highlights actually! Nestled away from the big city’s buzz you will find a place full of culture, community vibes and most importantly, the best and most colorful food ever. We participated in an edible excursion and ate our way through the “Gourmet Ghetto” in North Berkeley, one of the birth-places of Californian cuisine. Our lovely guide introduced us to culinary specialties from all around the world that found a home in this strip of town to spoil tourists as well as locals. Go, participate and roll home happily!
(Someone is getting really excited about his pizza at the cheese board collective)
7. Drink all the coffee
One star also shining bright in the Californian food and drink universe is the coffee scene. San Francisco’s love for coffee goes way beyond a pure lust for caffeine. As a huge fan of this heavenly drink myself I totally approve – a good coffee (and I mean a good coffee) can turn a shitty day around with just one sip and makes any vacation even more awesome! While Peets coffee – who were also founded in Berkeley – claim to have been the area’s 2nd-wave coffee pioneers back in the 60s, there are now also a decent amount of 3rd-wave spots to get your daily dose. I’d say that as long as there is some kind of wave, we’re all good! So good that it’s actually hard to decide where to go with so many awesome options.
(Third wave coffee and the perfect light!)
I really liked Ritual Coffee for their great roast and because they have a lovely spot close to Buena Vista Park that is perfect for a walk with your hot deliciousness. We’ve also got some more ideas for you here – if you can’t decide go for all of them. But don’t blame me if your hands end up shaky…
8. Fill up on the healthy stuff
Being a vegan since basically forever, I love San Francisco for all the delicious, healthy spots to get my daily dose of leaves (#whatveganseat). Since there are so many, I always have to come back into town for the options I have not tried yet (…what a bummer!) I really like Seed And Salt in the Marina district for their creative, organic cuisine. The selection of bowls, salads and sandwiches is an ideal choice if you are looking for a light lunch to get you fuelled for new discoveries. Another place I really enjoyed was the Nourish Cafe in the city center in Nob Hill (they have two locations). Serving delicious coffee, warm smiles and a great variety of breakfast options it’s the perfect spot to start your day just right – highly recommended!
(Love the savory breakfast and stuffing my face with veggie wraps)
(Yummy vegan food at Saul’s in Berkeley (left side) and nepalese food booth goodness)
9. Or indulge the all-American way
Don’t feel like eating all healthy? San Francisco’s got you covered for that as well! Check out Lori’s Diner and indulge the all-American way in an awesome, kitschy 50’s setting. You’ll get 5 pieces of toast, instead of just two, an honest filter coffee flat rate (screw all those waves!) and some real fun characters to hang out with on top of everything!
(Digging all the kitsch and the pitch black coffee)
10. Have a picnic in Dolores Park
There are many great places to enjoy the view on hilly San Francisco from, but Dolores Park has been one of my favorites so far – it’s a lovely gathering spot for all kinds of people and a very social place, especially on weekends. Grab some favorite snacks and enjoy the chilled vibes in good company – be it your (new) friends or a book. If you are lucky enough you can also watch the most beautiful sunsets here – but watch out, things can get pretty romantic.
(Fell in love with Dolores park!)
12. Stroll through the Mission and eat all the Guacamole
Donald, if you read this: have some dinner at Gracias Madres and maybe you’ll think twice about that wall! It’s one of the best restaurants I ever ate at – fully vegetarian, fully awesome Mexican food with the best, local ingredients. The avocado lovers’ paradise is located in the Mission district too, where you can naturally find some of the best Mexican and Spanish food in San Francisco. Make sure to swing by and eat as much Guacamole and homemade tacos as you possibly can…
(All the Guacamole, homemade corn chips and vegan coconut ceviche – heaven!)
11. Participate in a wine workshop at San Francisco wine school
If you are looking for something special to do while in town and want to learn more about (local) wine, check out San Francisco wine school. Built to professionally teach students of the gastronomy world as well as passionate amateurs, the range of their workshop offers is quite huge. You can find very intense and (justifiably) pricey workshops, as well as little, fun tasting events. Both would also make a good present for some epicure friend or lover, visiting town. When I was there we did a little bit of wine and food pairing and also made our own wine blend, which was really fun and lacked any of the snootiness you might be afraid to find at such a place. Worth going, if you love wine! I surely do.
(My pro “oh, this rosé is really good” face!)
13. Get some glitter on your cheeks at Haight-Ashbury
If you’ve still got some time left in your San Francisco schedule, and you dig the colorful and glittery stuff as much as I do, don’t miss checking out Haight-Ashbury for some real flower-power vibes, rainbows and sparkles on your cheeks. This beautiful little area full of pink, yellow and blue Victorian houses is supposed to be one of the birth places of the hippie culture in the 70s, so of course I’m loving it here. Love wins!
(Glitter, huge smiles and crazy colors in Haight-Ashbury – totally up my alley!)
14. Check out SFO MoMa and have some coffee on their terace
Apart from rainbow flags and flowers for everyone I also have a thing for museums. And for museum cafes. The one in San Francisco’s Modern Art Museum (MoMa) is especially nice – it has a huge, beautiful terrace with a sculpture garden and feels like a modern oasis, shieldingly environed by skyscrapers. I loved checking out some great art and then just hanging out there and enjoy the moment for a bit. Their coffee is pretty good too!
(Some art, followed by sun and coffee on MoMas terrace – perfect day!)
15. Make new friends
The people of San Francisco are some friendly, diverse folks and easy to connect with, so be sure to meet as many of them for new friends, fun stories and a lot of laughter.
Need some more inspiration? We’ve got you covered!
For those of you, who live in Europe and feel like they need to visit San Francisco right now I can really recommend Finnair’s new direct flight from Helsinki. The smoothest transit, friendly folks and I guess Helsinki airport is one of the most beautiful airports I’ve ever been to. Some smart, Finnish design is happening there for sure!
(Chilling like a royal at Sir Francis Drake Hotel and in the comfortable seats of Finnair. Thanks, guys!)
All photos © Tabea Mathern